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Teaching Pranayama

You know from your own practice that pranayama—breath control—has profound benefits for your body and mind. But when and how should you teach it to your students? Learn how six yogic traditions understand this powerful practice.

By Claudia Cummins

Ashtanga: Unifying Action, Breath, and Attention
Join a workshop with students from different yoga traditions and you can pick out Ashtanga practitioners with your eyes closed. They're the ones who sound like Star Wars's Darth Vader even when they're standing in Tadasana. That's because they're practicing Ujjayi breathing, which is carried all the way through the vigorous series of postures in this tradition.

Ashtanga teachers say the deep and rhythmic breath fuels the inner energetic flames, heating and healing the body. Just as importantly, Ujjayi breathing keeps the mind focused. By returning again and again to the subtle sound of this breath, the mind is forced to concentrate and become quiet. "Since the Ashtanga practice is very breath-oriented, in a sense you're doing a kind of pranayama from the moment you begin the practice," says Tim Miller, who has been teaching this approach to yoga for more than two decades.

In the Ashtanga tradition Ujjayi breathing is taught in concert with both Mula Bandha (Root Lock) and Uddiyana Bandha (Abdominal Lock). This means that while breathing, the pelvic floor and the belly are gently drawn inward and upward so that the breath is directed into the upper chest. When inhaling, students are instructed to expand the lower chest first, then the middle rib cage, and finally the upper chest.

Seated pranayama practices are also a part of this tradition, although Miller says that Pattabhi Jois, the father of Ashtanga Yoga, hasn't taught it to groups since 1992. Today only a handful of teachers regularly teachthis series, which is comprised of six different pranayama techniques. These practices are learned progressively, each one building upon the previous, and are practiced in a seated position with the eyes open. Typically, they are only introduced after students have practiced yoga for three to five years, Miller says, and have mastered at least the Primary Series of Ashtanga postures.

"As Patanjali says in the Yoga Sutra, one should have reasonable mastery of asana first, which means for sitting pranayama practice you need to have a comfortable seat," he says. "Not that people necessarily need to be able to sit in Padmasana [Lotus Pose] for 45 minutes, but at least they have to be able to sit in an upright position where they can be relatively still." In the first pranayama technique, students practice Ujjayi breathing while adding a pause at the end of the exhalation, a pattern called Bahya Kumbhaka. Then they reverse that pattern and pause at the end of the inhalation, a pattern called Antara Kumbhaka. Once mastered, these practices are integrated into a single sequence: three Ujjayi breaths with no breath holding, three Ujjayi breaths with exhalation retention, and then three Ujjayi breaths with inhalation retention. Mula Bandha and Uddiyana Bandha are engaged throughout, and Jalandhara Bandha, the Chin Lock, is added only during the inhalation retention.

The second practice in the Ashtanga sequence combines the retentions learned in the first sequence into each breath cycle, so that the breath is held after both the inhalation and the exhalation. The third sequence builds on the second, this time adding alternate nostril breathing, and the fourth incorporates Bhastrika (Bellows Breath), a rapid, forceful, diaphragmatic breathing that's similar to the practice Integral Yoga calls Kapalabhati. The more advanced practices build upon the first four in ever more complicated and demanding patterns.

"I think a lot of people are scared off by pranayama, and yet personally I think it's the most important part of yoga," Miller says. "People spend all those years making a 'good seat' with asana practice. At some point I hope they're going to use it."

Iyengar: Developing Precision, Power, and Subtlety
Like Ashtanga yoga, the Iyengar tradition takes seriously Patanjali's counsel that pranayama should be introduced only after a student is firmly grounded in asana. In this approach, formal breathing practices are separated from asana and are introduced in a slow and methodical fashion. Mary Dunn, a teacher in the Iyengar tradition who passed away in 2008, said students are ready to begin pranayama when they can practice deep relaxation in Savasana (Corpse Pose) with a calm and attentive mind. "They have to really be able to go inward and not just drop off into sleep," she said. "And they have to have a refined place where they can stop and simply be—not in an action or in the imagination, but in recognition of their internal state."

Pranayama is introduced in a reclining position, with the chest and head supported, so students can focus on the breath without the distraction of needing to maintain proper posture. Precise directions are offered to ensure that basic aspects of yogic breathing are well understood before students move on to more strenuous practices. True to Iyengar's "Come watch" approach, it's not uncommon to see 40 students fervently gazing at their teacher's rib cage, watching the instructor point to the precise area of the chest that should be engaged in any given phase of the breath.

Fundamental breathing awareness is introduced first, with students guided to observe the rhythm and texture of inhalation and exhalation. Ujjayi breathing is then introduced, first extending the breath on the exhalation and then reversing that pattern, lengthening the inhalation while exhaling normally. The belly is kept passive, and the lower ribs are activated first, followed by the middle ribs, and finally the upper chest—as if filling the chest from the bottom to top. Even when exhaling, emphasis is placed on maintaining an expansive quality to the rib cage.

The practice of Viloma Pranayama (Stop-Action Breathing) is also introduced early on. Here, a number of pauses are interspersed into the breath—first during the exhalation, then during the inhalation, and finally during both. Dunn said this teaches students how to direct the breath into specific areas of the chest, ensuring that the entire rib cage is fully activated while breathing deeply. "Viloma allows you to work on a piece of the breath at a time, and it also allows you to be more subtle in terms of placement, developing steadiness, control, and inwardness."

Once seated pranayama is introduced, Iyengar teachers focus on maintaining a balanced posture, starting out with a well-supported Sukhasana, or simple cross-legged posture, with the hips elevated on folded blankets. Specific breathing practices are introduced with the same methodical approach as when students lie down for pranayama, and in a similar sequence. Special emphasis is placed on Jalandhara Bandha, which Dunn says should be maintained throughout pranayama practice to protect the heart from strain.

At more advanced levels of practice, students incorporate Kumbhaka (Breath Retention) into Ujjayi and Viloma techniques, and are introduced to alternate nostril breathing. Mula Bandha and Uddiyana Bandha aren't even mentioned until students have reached the most advanced levels of practice. Outside of pranayama practice, Iyengar Yoga has a reputation for focusing more on alignment than breath, and often in a beginning asana class you won't hear much more than "Breathe!" But Dunn says the system attends carefully to the breath during movement, just in somewhat subtle ways. She points to Light on Yoga, the bible for Iyengar students, in which B.K.S. Iyengar offers detailed descriptions about breathing during the practice of specific postures. "There are instructions about the breath all the way through. It's the linchpin; it's in every pose," she says. "Once the shape and actions of the asanas are mature, form and breath merge," Dunn adds. "The breath in all its aspects becomes an integral part of the experience of practice."

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Reader Comments


Strange to read Mary Dunn's thoughts on pranayama quoted in the present tense. She was a wonderful teacher who is still missed, since her death in 2008. Is this an older article republished, or did Ms. Cummins choose to emphasize the eternal nature of spiritual practice by writing as though Mary were still with us?


Excellent articles on Pranayama. kudos to you for this wondeful presentation

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